Kilvert's World of Wonders: Growing up in
The Lutterworth Press £25
OF BOOKS about Francis Kilvert and his famous
diary there is seemingly to be no end. John Toman, with two books
on the diarist already to his credit, has now made it a trilogy
with a new volume that reveals the extent to which Kilvert was
stirred by the rapid changes in science and technology transforming
the face of mid-Victorian Britain. Toman shows how incomparable a
source is the diary in providing an account of tradition and
change, inertia and progress. He depicts a rural society at last
beginning to give way to modernity.
During Kilvert's early childhood, the railway mania
was at its height, and he was himself to become an enthusiastic
traveller by rail. In an 1874 diary entry, he recalls an anecdote
concerning the first train to travel to Birmingham along a
particular route. A bull took exception to it and came roaring down
the line at full charge to attack this apparent rival. The train
went on its way regardless and sent the bull flying. Progress had
won - to Kilvert's immense satisfaction.
The diarist was a man of ideas, and Toman puts many
of these on the map for the reader to follow - showing, for
instance, how Kilvert coped with the theory of evolution as it
swept through Victorian Christian circles.
He took an intense interest in mesmerism, folklore,
and the supernatural. The diary narrates frequent supernatural
incidents -and notes Kilvert's own belief in the existence of
angels. In the entry for 28 April 1870, he recalls hearing "a
great, sudden flap of an unseen wing. Angels were going about the
hill in the evening light." The entry's matter-of-fact tone, in
Toman's view, suggests that Kilvert was not indulging in a mere
flight of fancy.
Many readers of the diary will recall his encounter
with "Irish Mary" during a railway trip to Liverpool in 1872. Toman
suggests that Mary was controlling him by mesmeric power. "Our eyes
met again and again. My eyes were fixed and riveted on hers. A few
minutes more and I know not what would have happened." Kilvert was
only too aware, Toman says, that he and the girl were communicating
at a level that made "respectability" meaningless, because "there
was an attractive power about this poor Irish girl that fascinated
We don't know whether Kilvert, as a young
undergraduate, was present at the famous Oxford debate in June 1860
between Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, Darwin's
close friend and supporter, at which Huxley was reported to have
said: "I would rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop."
But, in the course of his life, the diarist gradually adjusted
himself to the theory of evolution, and achieved some sort of
reconciliation between science and faith.
Toman will have put all devotees of Francis Kilvert
in his debt with this masterly conclusion to his trilogy - and not
least the members of the Kilvert Society, whose president is none
other than the Church Times'own Ronald Blythe.
Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church